Prime Minister John Key has dismissed claims he is placing pressure on the Conservation Department (DoC) by appearing at the opening of Bathurst Resources' new office.
Environment groups and the Green Party said Key's appearance would be a sign to DoC - which is to decide on access agreements for Bathurst's flagship West Coast project - of what the Prime Minister wanted it to do.
Up to 200 protesters from a variety of environmental groups, along with Green Party MPs, confronted Key and other invitees as they arrived at Bathurst's Willeston St offices in Wellington last night.
The Greens said it was inappropriate for Key to open the Bathurst offices while the company's plans are before the Environment Court.
Green Party environment spokeswoman Catherine Delahunty said today the Prime Minister was sending two messages with his appearance.
"It's one, that despite 50,000 people protesting against the mining of conservation land in 2010, we didn't hear you; we are in favour of mining conservation land despite public opinion.
"And secondly, we are happy to endorse a company that have applied for extremely controversial open cast coal mine in some of most unique habitat."
Key had arrived to the opening last night to jeers of "shame" and "you say mine, we say ours", she said.
There was a major assault by the mining industry to open up to mining any part of New Zealand it could: "Assisted by the Government who are not listening to what people have very strongly told them."
Forest & Bird conservation advocate Nicola Toki said Key's appearance put pressure on the Conservation Department, which is still to decide whether to grant Bathurst access concessions to the plateau.
''The Prime Minister turning up in an official capacity and endorsing the Bathurst office is a not-so-subtle way of influencing where the Department of Conservation should go.''
Key dismissed the suggestion at the event last night.
''They (DoC) make their own decisions. It's a notified access agreement ... I'm simply coming because I go to lots of businesses and if I didn't go to a business because they had an access agreement or an RMA [Resource Management Act] consent in the pipeline, I might as well count myself out of going to a lot of businesses in New Zealand.''
Key denied the decision to turn up at the opening had backfired because of the attention it had attracted.
''We are supporting what we think is an important economic activity in New Zealand. To have not turned up would have been to give in to protesters who we believe are misguided in what they're doing.
''This is going to be a notified access agreement for the Denniston Plateau so there is no hiding away from that. Whether the protesters turn up in Wellington or they turn up on the West Coast, one thing you can be sure of is they're going to turn up.''
While organisers implored protesters that the demonstration was to be peaceful, and there were no signs of violence, many of those invited were heckled as they arrived, with some urged to ''go back to Australia''.
Bathurst is headquartered in Perth, although its operations are focused entirely on New Zealand. It has applied to mine for high-value coking coal, used for making steel and electronics components, on the Denniston Plateau, just north of Westport.
A resource consent has been granted for the open-cut Escarpment mine, but the decision has been appealed to the Environment Court by the environmental groups, which claim the mine will destroy a unique ecosystem.
Bathurst issued a statement yesterday saying the new office would allow it to be close to ''stakeholders, including customers, the government and environmental groups'' as it developed its projects.
''Over the next decades, we'll be sharing the benefits of our business with hundreds of New Zealand families and businesses and contributing to the long-term protection of the conservation estate in the South Island,'' managing director Hamish Bohannan said.
Last night, Bohannan said the office opening was ''very symbolic'' of the company's commitment to New Zealand. A number of MPs attended, as did the Australian High Commissioner.
''We are, obviously, a New Zealand company, with New Zealand shareholders, employing New Zealanders, contributing to the New Zealand economy and playing our part in the rejuvenation of the South Island West Coast.''
The dual-listed company claims mitigation factors, including pest eradication, will provide an environmental ''net benefit'' for the plateau. Its shareholder base is overwhelmingly Australian.
Bathurst expects to spend around $140 a tonne extracting the coking coal, used in steel making, including up to $30 million upgrading Westport Harbour through which most of the coal will be shipped to New Plymouth.